The Purpose of Acts
It seems good to me to write to most excellent Theophilus. The unanswered question has been why!
Previous approaches have failed to explain many of the nuances of Luke-Acts identified in this book. From 1720, commentators have viewed Luke-Acts as a defense of Christianity to convince Roman officials, who considered this new religion a threat, that they had nothing to fear.[i] The theory that Luke addressed his gospel to Theophilus to place Christians in a favorable light with Roman officials was well regarded in the first half of the 20th century. A variation of this theory was the religio licita theory[ii] that advocated that foreign religions had to be licensed. This theory further proposed that Luke was attempting to demonstrate to Roman officials that Christianity was a form of Judaism entitled to exist under the licensing privileges extended to Judaism. In 1983, Walaskay[iii] asserted that Luke was attempting to persuade members of the church rather than Roman officials. Esler[iv] concluded that Luke-Acts is a legitimating text for Christianity. Heusler[v] has returned to the apologia pro ecclesia theory. Heusler asserted that a review of Roman legal history discloses that Luke has reported trials conducted in accordance with proper legal procedure. However none of approaches have discussed the purpose of Luke-Acts in conjunction with the identification of Theophilus with a known person in history.
This book has shown that when a particular Roman appointee[vi], who happens to know Saul, is viewed as the addressee, all of the pieces of the puzzle are utilized, fit together properly and the completed puzzle is a masterpiece. Luke writes to most excellent Theophilus, the High Priest, to persuade him that the followers of Jesus will not bring the wrath of Rome upon Israel. In the second letter, Luke writes to persuade Theophilus, who is the ranking elder[vii], that the prosecution of Paul, the chosen instrument or vessel of the Lord, should not be continued.
Saul was chosen by the High Priest[viii] to carry letters from the High Priest to synagogues in the Diaspora.[ix] Paul, formerly known as Saul, is the “chosen vessel” of the Lord “before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” and he carries the message to Gentiles and Jews in the Diaspora.[x] This is a clear indication that Luke does not view Saul’s mission solely to Gentiles or in rejection of his fellow Jews. C.K. Barrett opined that “Luke . . . means that Saul is the one whom the Lord has singled out for special service.”[xi] With respect to verses 15-16, Dunn observes “ . . . the prominence Luke gives to the name - Saul's mission will be to carry Jesus' name before the various audiences and to suffer for the sake of the name, a double emphasis . . ..”[xii] The wording of verse 15 is also re-enforced by its special placement within a literary structure. Bligh has noted that Luke has created a chiastic pattern for Acts 9:1-25 with vv. 15-16 in the vertex of the structure.[xiii] Talbert states: “The significance of this surface structure is that its centerpiece focuses the item of central significance for the auditor of Acts: Paul’s commission.”[xiv]
Kaiser calls the chiasmus "one of the major artistic conventions for narratives in the Bible . . . a key for detecting an author’s aims for the main event or principle idea typically occurs in the apex - that is the middle of the story."[xv] Thus this is a second example where Luke has placed the name of a person known to Theophilus in the vertex of a chiasmus. In the first instance, Luke used this literary device to call the attention of Theophilus to the role of his granddaughter as an eyewitness to the resurrection. In this instance, he, the enemy is chosen as an emissary of the Lord. The name of Saul does not appear in the vertex but Theophilus would recognize that the phrase, “he is my chosen vessel”, refers to Saul. Having reported earlier the warning issued by Gamaliel to the Sanhedrin,[xvi] Luke did not have to tell Theophilus that the temple authorities in continuing the prosecution of Paul maybe opposing God.
Perhaps Luke has something else in mind. Throughout his account Luke has shown that the record of Paul before Gallio, Felix and Festus demonstrates that this prosecution initiated by Ananias the High Priest[xvii] and the elders[xviii] is a sham prosecution. What possible significance could this have? After Paul asserted his right as Roman citizen to appeal to Rome[xix], Festus was required to arrange the transportation of Paul to Rome together with the record of the proceeding. The prosecutor, Ananias and the elders, was then required to appear in Rome with his witnesses and proceed with their charges.
Cadbury and Lake have suggested that the phrase “two whole years” tells us the charges against Paul were dismissed for failure to prosecute.[xx] Sherwin-White notes that the Emperor Claudius “proposed measures to discourage accusers who failed to follow up with their charges.”[xxi] Sherwin-White further states: “In default they [accusers] were to be charged with calumnia, or vexatious prosecution. Claudius’ proposals were eventually codified and completed by the SC. Turpilianus of A.D. 61, which defined the offense of destitutio, as it came to be called, and enacted penalties for defaulting accusers.”[xxii] The point of Sherwin-White’s detailed discussion was to establish that this procedure implemented by Claudius provided no relief for persons awaiting trial, as Roman law did not recognize any right of speedy trial until the fourth century or later.
However Luke did intend to issue a warning to Theophilus about a recent change in Roman law. First Luke tells Theophilus that Felix “hoped that money would be given him by Paul.”[xxiii] Luke implicates Felix as a fraudulent governor.[xxiv]
Second, the SC Turpilianum enacted in the time of Nero in the consulship of Caesonius Paetus and Petronius Trupillus 61 C.E., was against praevaricatio or the collusive desisting from prosecuting a criminal charge. After first providing the occasion, the terms of this Senatusconsultum are stated by Tacitus: "additur senatus consulto, qui talem operant emptitasset, vendidissetve, perinde poena teneretur ac publico judicio calumniae condemnaretur"[xxv] translated as [A clause] was added to the Senate's decree, that whoever bought or sold such a service was to be just as liable to punishment as if he had been publicly convicted of false accusation. Thus not only a vexatious prosecution, as discussed by Sherwin-White, but also the payment of a bribe in connection with a criminal prosecution was subject to severe criminal sanctions.
Since Luke was in Rome with Paul at the time of the SC Turpilianum enactment, he would have been aware of its enactment and its implications for Paul if the tribunal believed the allegations against Felix. Coincidently, Felix was also in Rome at the same time as Paul facing charges. Thus a delegation coming to Rome to prosecute Paul could face the possibility of criminal charges against them for a sham prosecution.
This discussion introduces another possible interpretation of the purpose of Acts of the Apostles that has the advantages of explaining the presentation of the extensive trial material and such minute legal details as the retention of a certain orator named Turtullus. Unfortunately we do not know if this effort to persuade Theophilus not to proceed was successful, nor do we know whether or not the Jewish delegation ever appeared in Rome. Josephus does tells us about another delegation that refused the request of Agrippa to make a conciliation visit to Rome. They refused in the aftermath of the entry into the Temple by Florus et al. believing that they would be executed for defying Florus. Are there any other instances when Jewish delegations refused to go to Rome other than the delegation Agrippa requested?
Sherwin-White does discuss some possible outcomes. The charges could have been withdrawn for good cause[xxvi] or the emperor could have dismissed the charges as a form of clemency.[xxvii] This proposal is consistent with either of these possibilities. It is also consistent with a trial commencing after the close of the letter and its delivery to Theophilus.
[i] Heumann, C. A., “Dissertatio de Theophilo cui Lucas Historiam Sacram Inscripsit”, Bibliotheca Historico-Philogico-Theologica, Classis IV, (Bremen, 1720), 483-505.
[ii] First proposed by B.S. Easton, The Purpose of Acts, (London 1936).
[iii] Walaskay, Paul W., "And so we came to Rome": the political perspective of St. Luke, (Cambridge, 1983).
[iv] Esler, Philip Francis, Community and gospel in Luke-Acts: the social and political motivations of Lucan theology, (Cambridge, 1987).
[v] Heusler, Erika, Kapialprozesse im Lukanischen Doppelwerk: Die Verfahren Gren Jesus und Paulus in Exegetischer und Rechtshistorischer Analyse, (Munster, 2002).
[vi] Theophilus was appointed High Priest by the Roman governor, Vitellius. Josephus AJ Book 18 (V)(3).
[vii] Following the murder of his brother Jonathan by the Sicarii, Theophilus became the ranking member of the Ananas’ family and of the elders of the Temple. The Ananas’ family was one of the wealthiest and most influential Jewish families in Palestine during the first century.
[viii] If Theophilus is the High Priest who selected Saul, then the turn of events is striking and ironic. This pericope thus presents yet another distinctively Lucan perspective on the reversal of roles.
[ix] Acts 9:1-2. Mantel has shown that the High Priest and the Nesi'im was in contact with all the Jewish communities through emissaries and proclamations. H. Mantel, Studies in the History of the Sanhedrin, (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), 188; In Acts 9:1-2, Luke's report on Saul's planned persecution implies that letters from the High Priest could have considerable influence in synagogues as far away as Damascus; see also Acts 9:14, 22:5 and 26:12.
[x] Acts 9:15-16.
[xi] Barrett, A critical and exegetical commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), Vol. 1, 456.
[xii] Dunn, James D. G., The Acts of the Apostles, (Valley Forge, 1996), 123.
[xiii] Bligh, Galatians in Greek: a structural analysis of St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, with notes on the Greek, (Detroit, 1966), 95.
[xiv] Talbert, Charles H., Reading Acts: a literary and theological commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, (New York: Crossroad, 1997), 102.
[xv] Kaiser, Walter C., Jr., and Silva, Moisés, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: the search for meaning, (Zondervan, 1994), in particular Chapter 4.
[xvi] Acts 5:34-39.
[xvii] Ananias son of Nebedaeus (48-59 C.E.); War 2.243, 409-442; Ant. 20.103, 131; VanderKam, James C., From Joshua to Caiaphas: high priests after the Exile, (Minneapolis, 2004), 455. Ananias was no stranger to the Roman legal system having been brought to Rome to faces charges before the Emperor.
[xviii] Theophilus as a former High Priest is one of the elders.
[xix] Luke has Paul use the phrase, provocatio, which is proper legal terminology.
[xx] Find citation for Cadbury and Lake
[xxi] Sherwin-White, A. N, Roman society and Roman law in the New Testament, (Oxford, 1963), 112.
[xxii] Sherwin-White, 113.
[xxiii] Act 24:26.
[xxiv] Robbins, Vernon K., "Luke-Acts: a mixed population seeks a home in the Roman Empire," 202-221 in Alexander, Loveday, ed., Images of empire, (Sheffield, 1991), 205.
[xxv] Tacitus, Ann. xiv.
 Perculit is dies Pompeium quoque Aelianum, iuvenem quaestorium, tamquam flagitiorum Fabiani gnarum, eique Italia et Hispania, in qua ortus erat, interdictum est. pari ignominia Valerius Ponticus adficitur, quod reos, ne apud praefectum urbis arguerentur, ad praetorem detulisset, interim specie legum, mox praevaricando ultionem elusurus. additur senatus consulto, qui talem operam emptitasset vendidissetve, perinde poena teneretur ac publico iudicio calumniae condemnatus.
That same day was fatal also to Pompeius Aelianus, a young ex-quaestor, suspected of complicity in the villanies of Fabianus. He was outlawed from Italy, and from Spain, where he was born. Valerius Pontius suffered the same degradation for having indicted the defendants before the praetor to save them from being prosecuted in the court of the city-prefect, purposing meanwhile to defeat justice on some legal pretext and subsequently by collusion. A clause was added to the Senate's decree, that whoever bought or sold such a service was to be just as liable to punishment as if he had been publicly convicted of false accusation.
[xxvi] Sherwin-White, 117.
[xxvii] Sherwin-White, 119.
Richard H. Anderson